Catherine Hardwicke Crafts a New Kind of Action-Thriller in Miss Bala

We talked to director Catherine Hardwicke about action thriller Miss Bala and the changing filmmaking industry.

When Miss Bala was released in theaters earlier this year, the action-thriller adaptation of a Mexican film of the same name unfortunately didn’t make much of a splash, despite its cast, which includes Jane the Virgin‘s Gina Rodriguez and the MCU‘s Anthony Mackie, and its fresh take on a tired genre.

The film follows Gloria (Rodriguez), an L.A.-based makeup artist who travels to Tijuana to help her friend Suzu (Cristina Rodlo) compete in a beauty pageant, only to be forced to work for a Mexican drug cartel when her friend is kidnapped. Throughout the film, we see Gloria struggle to break free of a cycle of violence in realistic ways for a person who has no prior experience in this world defined by a power struggle between a drug cartel, the DEA, and the local police. 

It’s a shame Miss Bala didn’t make more waves because, written by Gareth Dunnet-Alcocer and directed by Catherine Hardwicke (Twilight, Thirteen), Miss Bala is that rare action-thriller that not only centers a female character, but refuses to glorify a culture of guns and violence in a subgenre that almost always revels in some glorification of (usually male) power and almost never prioritizes a sustained exploration of those (often women) most brutally affected by the abuse of that power.

We talked to director Hardwicke about the changes she made adapting Miss Bala from its original, Spanish-language version to one geared towards English-speaking audiences, her depiction of Mexico in relation to the United States, and her experiences as a women director working in a male-dominated industry…

Miss Bala’s depiction of Mexico.

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Miss Bala subverts the typical thriller that centers on violence around the U.S.-Mexico border in many ways. One way is in how it depicts Mexico and the U.S. in relation to one another. There is no hierachy here; only two, vibrant places filled with culture, families, and cycles of violence.

For Hardwicke, who grew up along the Mexican border in Texas (“literally, our farm is right on the Rio Grande river”) and who studied in Mexico for a time, it wasn’t hard to see Tijuana as a nuanced, complex place filled with culture.

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“I love Mexico. I grew up loving the culture because it is such an artistic culture. And I studied art in San Miguel de Allende for one summer. I traveled to almost every state in Mexico and art architecture there. So for me it’s a very rich, beautiful tradition with fascinating music, [with] everything.”

When Hardwicke had the opportunity to direct a film mostly set in Tijuana, she wanted to show the sophisticated and artistic aspects of the Mexican border town rather than diving straight into the grittier aspects of the city without any nuanced context. 

“People don’t think of that, you know, when you think of a border town,” said Hardwicke. “But it’s vibrant. I mean, there’s music. There’s art. There’s cool graffiti. There’s food trucks. There’s cutting edge cuisine. So I wanted you to feel that there’s this awesome culture there and feel it as much as I could help that permeate the film.”

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Balancing language in a multi-lingual film world.

Miss Bala may be an adaptation of a Spanish-language film geared towards English-language audiences, but it still contains a fair amount of Spanish, as most of the characters speak both English and Spanish, jumping between the two depending on who they are talking to and what their language skills are.

“[Gloria] is supposed to be somebody that is not fluent in Spanish. Her character is and even Ismael’s character [Lino, played by Ismael Cruz Córdova] isn’t that fluent, but [Gloria] isn’t fluent at all. That’s intentional,” said Hardwicke. “She is straddling this identity, sort of, [a] crisis that many Latinx people have. They grew up in the States. They look Latinx, but they’re not fluent. So they get criticized when they go to Mexico. And even they’re criticized in their own country. So that was kind of interesting.”

Working with Miss Bala’s Gina Rodriguez.

Hardwicke has a history of working with talented actors early in this career, having previously worked with 17-year-old Kristen Stewart in Twilight and 15-year-old Evan Rachel Wood in Thirteen, Hardwicke’s directorial debut. At 34, a successful actor and director, Rodriguez is far from at the beginning of her career, but she is someone who feels like she has a long, promising career still ahead of her. 

Hardwicke describes Rodriguez as “no nonsense,” as someone who is “super positive” and who “puts everything onto the screen.” It shows in the finished product. Rodriguez’s performance grounds the entire film, giving us a sense of the immense weight and trauma the violence happening on screen can have. Miss Bala refuses to glorify the violence happening on screen, even when it is being wielded to hurt those who have hurt Gloria.

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“When I met her, I could just see her intensity, her vulnerability, but also her likability, in a way,” said Hardwicke of Rodriguez. “Like, you want to go on this journey with her. You just want to be her best friend. You want to go on this trip with her.”

“And what is she gonna do?” Hardwicke continued. “Would I be able to survive this? I mean, she’s not trained as a Navy SEAL or anything, but she’s figuring out how to get out of these crazy escalating circumstances. And every role I’ve seen her in she really just pulls you in. It’s such a rare quality, I think. I definitely enjoyed watching her in this movie.

Miss Bala’s critical consensus.

Miss Bala didn’t do well critically, earning a 22% “Fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes, compared to its 62% audience approval rating on the same site. The film, which centers the female experience in a genre generally made by and for men, is a perfect candidate for the mainstream discussion we’re starting to have as an industry about who reviews films (mostly white men) and how that impacts critical consensus.

“I do think it has an impact,” said Hardwicke of the film critic norm. “For example, in this case, [Miss Bala] was inspired by the earlier film, but a young Mexican writer rewrote it. And then when Gina and I came on, of course we didn’t want to follow the pattern of the other film [in] which the lead character was extremely passive and everything happens to her. She never fights back.”

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The original Miss Bala, which was released in 2011 and has a male director, includes sexual violence, which the adaptation notably does not, though it does feel like a real, lingering threat throughout most of the film. 

“Certain critics seem to have kind of revered that [original] film more than ours because [the main, female character] is extremely passive in the film. I mean, maybe that’s one of the reasons,” said Hardwicke. “And so we made something nine years later where a woman isn’t passive and is trying to use any skills, any strategies, she can to figure out how to save her friend and get out of there. And she has a dignity and a presence.”

Hardwicke sees a correlation between the way female agency and the male gaze are treated differently in the two films, and the way mostly male critics respectively responded.

“Some people were like, ‘Oh, the other film was so great,'” said Hardwicke. “Yeah, you see a passive woman, all this bad stuff happens to her, she never does anything. Of course you like it better, male critic. Which I think is kind of outrageous, but interesting. It’s fascinating.”

Working as a women director in a male-dominated industry.

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Of course the overrepresentation of white men isn’t limited to those reviewing most Hollywood fare, but also to who is making most studio movies. A few years ago, Hardwicke testified as part of the ongoing ACLU and Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s investigation into gender bias in the entertainment industry, which began in 2015. Did the process of testifying affect Hardwicke’s perspective on her own career thus far?

“You realize, when you do go back over your career, ‘Wow, that situation … ‘ because, often, as everybody’s spoken more eloquently, you feel alone,” said Hardwicke, referencing the #MeToo movement which gained momentum following the start of the investigation.

“Like, this happened to me,” Hardwicke continued. “I was inadequate. I wasn’t good enough. I didn’t figure out how to avoid this. I didn’t figure out how to make the next chess move to advance to the next position in a better way. And then you start reading obviously awesome books like Lean In. Then you see systemic patterns and you really look at the statistics and go, ‘Holy shit. It wasn’t just me.'”

For Hardwicke, it’s also helpful to look at the change that has happened over the course of her career. The fact that these stories are starting to come to light and be taken more seriously is not nothing. And Miss Bala represents a progression in the kinds of movies and creators who are being given if not enough, then a few more opportunities when it comes to the studio system.

“The fact that Miss Bala got made by a studio is fantastic, a Latina lead, directed by a woman,” said Hardwicke. “That was a priority for them. So usually that wouldn’t be a priority. And of course there’s still a ton great female stories that are still directed by men, on and on and on. But at least some people have their consciousness raised enough to say, ‘Maybe we should try to find a female director for that.'”

Hardwicke pointed out that things are moving a bit quicker in the TV world, where she has directed an episode of This Is Us and is preparing to another, and recently directed a pilot for The CW. 

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“I think that they feel a sense of responsibility to have more different voices out there and have more women directors,” said Hardwicke. “And they make more of an effort than people used to make. So that’s good.”

Hardwicke, who made herself in the film industry as a production designer before moving on to directing, worked as a production designer on Rachel Talalay’s Tank Girl

“It was really a creative experience,” said Hardwicke of her memories working on the comic book adaptation. “I mean, for me, I got to build tanks with barbecue pits. It was so fun, [on] every level. And [Rachel] encouraged that creativity and out of the box thinking.”

Den of Geek talked to Talalay earlier this year about her struggles to get the kinds of big-budget directing opportunities her male colleagues with similar or less experience get, despite decades of working in the film and TV industries. Hardwicke echoed the sentiment.

“We all talk about directors’ jail,” said Hardwicke. “You have one movie that doesn’t get marketed right, or doesn’t get released on the right day, or nobody hears about it, or whatever happens, or it’s released at the wrong time. All those things that directors can’t control. But it doesn’t make money and then suddenly, ‘Oh, her film didn’t make money, so she doesn’t get to direct a film again for a long time.'”

Hardwicke continued: “Whereas, we know many guys get another chance, another chance, another chance, with a bigger budget. But it’s all competitive for men, women, everybody. People right now, especially, just trying to figure out what can work in the marketplace that’s not a superhero. And how do you break through all of these things and what’s the best format, what’s the best way to get your stories told and get them out there.”

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Looking forward.

Hardwicke is unwilling to wallow too long in the unjust frustrations of the industry, at least in this context, speaking excitedly about some of her upcoming projects and the benefits of working in the entertainment industry at a point when so much is changing.

“It’s a very exciting time right now,” said Hardwicke. “So much is going on. It’s just awesome. I’m doing something for Quibi, you know that new format which is short bites, quick bites … It’s an exciting story and they’re encouraging a lot of creative freedom. So, it’s an amazing time right now with so many cool opportunities.”

Hardwicke is also poised to direct the pilot for the The Raven Cycle, a popular book series from author Maggie Steifvater that this writer is very excited about.

However, like Talalay, it seems hard, when reflecting on career past and future, to balance the excitement between what they have managed to achieve as directors working in a male-dominated industry and all of the missed opportunities that have been snatched from them on account of their sex.

“I think Rachel and myself and many other people [think]: ‘Wow, we could have been making stuff for the last 15 years, a million cool things,'” said Hardwicke. “So we’ve just got to seize the moment now and so does everybody else and just go for it now.”

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Listen to the full audio of this interview on The Fourth Wall podcast:

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Kayti Burt is a staff editor covering books, TV, movies, and fan culture at Den of Geek. Read more of her work here or follow her on Twitter @kaytiburt.